The first week of training camp confirmed the promise of a bountiful offseason.
The offense is dynamic. The defense is ferocious. The head coach remains a geyser of youthful enthusiasm.
Ironically, these strengths are vulnerabilities for the Rams in the one battle they have to win in order to win the Super Bowl: The never-ending contract negotiation with their best player, Aaron Donald.
Two years removed from a four-win season, the Rams now have something to lose. And an otherwise well-executed plan to transform them from city-wide laughingstocks to league champions could be blown up by the reigning NFL defensive player of the year.
All Donald has to do is not show up for work.
The question isn’t whether Donald deserves to be paid like a high-end quarterback. He won’t be. He can’t be. The NFL has a salary cap and the Rams would be unwise to have more than $25 million invested annually in a defensive tackle, regardless of how dominant he is.
The real question is whether Donald will exercise the only leverage play at his disposal, extend his holdout into the regular season and compromise everything the Rams have built over the last year.
And if he does?
More specifically, trade him.
It’s not as if the Rams are treating him unfairly. They have taken care of Todd Gurley by making him the highest-paid running back in the game and they want to take care of Donald by making him the highest-paid defensive player in football.
This is the second consecutive year Donald has held out, giving his absence from training camp a feel of normalcy. Only something like this should never feel normal.
The Rams can’t have this happen year after year, which will be their fate if they fail to strike a deal with Donald but retain him beyond this season.
Rewarding him with a long-term contract after a prolonged holdout this season would set a bad precedent, as it would signal to players that the most effective method of extracting a desirable contract from the organization is to withhold their services. Donald is set to become a free agent after this season — he would be a restricted free agent as opposed to an unrestricted free agent if he doesn’t report by Tuesday — but the Rams could block his departure for as many as three years by putting a franchise tag on him.
The Rams would have Donald at a reasonable price in that scenario, but they would also have to deal with this sort of drama every summer. If he is holding out now, the guess is that he will hold out again if his earnings were determined by a franchise tag.
Donald would continue to have the power to hold the Rams hostage like this, his absence threatening to prevent the team from fully taking advantage of the developmental gains made by quarterback Jared Goff or the offensive innovations implemented by coach Sean McVay.
And that’s only part of the problem.
His holdouts will become a problem in the locker room the moment his performance declines. The assumption is that this won’t happen for some time, considering that Donald had a monster season last year after sitting out all of training camp. But Donald is already 27. Even if he has a similar season this year, could he do that again at 28 or 29? And if he misses a crucial tackle after sitting out training camp, his teammates will be grumbling.
The Rams remain hopeful the situation could be resolved before any of that happens, which is why they have been guarded and diplomatic when speaking of Donald and his representatives.
Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer, characterized the conversations between the two sides as “positive dialogue.”
“I give their side great credit,” Demoff said Wednesday. “They’ve handled themselves in a very professional manner. It’s a hard deal. You’re talking about an elite player. You’re trying to find the right deal for a really long time and fit into a hard salary cap on a team with a lot of talented young players. That’s what makes this deal difficult, but I’ll always be optimistic that we can bridge any gaps and find a way to get this done.”
Demoff was predictably evasive when asked if he had any doubts whether Donald would be present for the season opener.
“I think our job is to try to figure out a way to focus that he’s here for the next six to eight opening days,” he said.
At this stage, the Rams can still laugh about the matter.
“Every night, I wake up with nightmares about it,” McVay said, jokingly.
When the laughter around him subsided, McVay said in a more serious tone, “That’s certainly something that you’d like to get taken care of. Let’s put it this way: I’ll sleep a lot better if we get that taken care of.”
Management’s kind words about Donald speak not only to his value to the team, but also the front office’s understanding of his stand.
Donald isn’t railing against the Rams. He’s railing against an economic structure that was collectively bargained by the union that represents him. He’s making the case that players at his position are underpaid, only this isn’t the right place or time to be attempting to subvert the system. That would be in 2021, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. By then, of course, it’s too late for Donald.